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    Christian societies were responsible for an engagement to slavery in its most hideous, dehumanizing
    form.  ... Islam has been, by specific spiritual precept and in common practice, relatively humane in
    its treatment of slaves and its readiness to free them...
        -Ronald Segal, Author's Preface to Islam's Black Slaves

This truly odd book details the horrors of the enslavement of black Africans in the Islamic world--a traffic in human beings which equaled in volume that of the better known Atlantic slave trade  (totaling some 11 million blacks in each case), and which continues to this day, particularly in places like the Sudan--but at the same time seeks to differentiate Islam's treatment of slaves, which is portrayed as relatively enlightened and beneficent, from the harsher treatment of blacks, both slave and free, in the West.  Though I had trouble finding much biographical information on Segal, his motivation in this exercise appears to be twofold.  First, there's the simple necessity to explain, not merely the absence of racial tension in the modern Islamic world, but also the absence of blacks : where, after all, did the 11 million go ?  Why is there no conspicuous black culture in the Middle East ?  Second, based on the admittedly sketchy evidence I could find : that Segal, a white South African, was a significant player in the ANC in the late 50s & early 60s and that his prior books include a biography of Trotsky and Race War, which apparently predicted such a war in America, it seems safe to assume that, if not a Marxist, he is at least a Leftist, which would tend to suggest that his exoneration of Islam may be intended to indict the West.

In presenting the history of the African slave trade, Segal perforce has to concede the thorough involvement of Arabs in the capture, sale and transport of black Africans.  Likewise, he acknowledges that the Islamic world did make just as extensive use of black slaves as did the West.  But he differentiates the treatment of blacks by Muslim captors, suggesting several religious bases for it :

    * Islam's unique blend of the religious and the political into a unitary system  mitigated against the
        development of capitalist economies, so that blacks tended to be used in households rather than in
        heavy manual labor.

    * The Koran specifically commands Muslims to treat slaves well and offers inducements in the next
        world to those who free their slaves.

    * While the gender ratio of slaves imported to the West was 2-1 male to female, the exact opposite
        was true in the Islamic world.  This high ratio of household female slaves and a tradition of
        polygamy and concubinage, led to the use of blacks as sex objects, and in the absence of systemic
        racism and theories of racial superiority, mixed race offspring tended to be accepted into the
        household and the subsequent freeing of the children's mothers.

These factors account for the milder treatment of blacks and, in part, for their assimilation into Islamic society.  Several other factors help to account for the disappearance of a distinct black populace :

    * Males slaves were frequently turned into eunuchs--so obviously they had no offspring.

    * Many of the rest were used as soldiers, with resulting low survival rates.

    * For unexplained reasons, African slave women imported to the Islamic states had extraordinarily
        low fertility rates.

    * Mortality rates among Islam's black slaves were extremely high, from adverse treatment, disease,
        and other causes.

In the end, Segal suggests, a combination of death, infertility (naturally occurring and man made) and miscegenation must account for the disappearance of blacks and blackness from the Islamic Middle East.

This brings us to an intriguing question : does the absence of racial tension in the Islamic world necessarily indicate that the experience of black Africans was in fact less horrific than in the West ?  Segal kind of glides past the rather important fact that using blacks for sex (heterosexual and homosexual, which he says was prevalent) and making them eunuchs constituted physical assault on a rather massive scale.  Nowhere does he refer to the sexual practices as what they really were : rape.  Nor is it possible to figure out why he considers the systematic neutering of black males to be less objectionable than the forced physical labor of the American South.  The key sentence in the book may be the following :

    While slavery in the West was directed to the productive economy, in the Ottoman Empire it was a
    form of consumption.

I recognize that to some people the worst fate possible is to be treated as a mere cog in the means of production, but I'm uncertain that most of us would agree with Segal that it is better to be an object for consumption.  At the point where you have to debate whether cotton picking or sexual degradation was more dehumanizing, I think it's safest to admit that both Islam and the West were responsible for monstrous treatment of innocent peoples and leave it at that.

The secondary issue which arises is : given a choice, and it is admittedly an awful choice, would people choose the suffering they underwent in the West, but emergence with the vibrant and vital black culture we see in America today; or the complete (forced) assimilation that took place in the Islamic world with the resulting annihilation of the race as a race ?  I'd suggest the answer to this is very much a subject for debate.  We pay frequent lip service to the idea of creating a color blind society, but we all cling pretty fiercely to our respective ethnic heritages.  And it's not like you hear Arabs celebrating the fact that they are the product of extensive racial intermingling.  The modern Islamic world may very well be to a significant degree the product of those 11 million black slaves, but if it is, they are awfully quiet about that fact, which does not suggest such an enlightened attitude.

It is also difficult to reconcile the continuing Islamic slave trade with the idea of enlightenment.  Segal discusses the ongoing traffic in human beings that is occurring even today in places like the Sudan--A. M. Rosenthal wrote a piece for the NY Times several years ago in which he said that there are still tens of thousands of slaves in the Sudan.  We have to acknowledge that racial violence continues in the United States, but such incidents are isolated and are met with society wide outrage,  Even if, for the sake of argument, we concede that plantation-style slavery was more oppressive for blacks than Islamic slavery, the Christian world would certainly seem to be winning the comparison now, and for the last few decades, at least.

As to Segal's motivation, I can only point to a couple of cryptic remarks as evidence of my theory that he is driven by a dislike of the West.  At one point he characterizes the Western economic system as "an ultimate totalitarianism of money" and he elsewhere speaks of capitalism as "the effective subjugation of people to the priority of profit."  These assessments, and several similar, and the general tone of the book, betray a general hostility to the organizing principles of Western society.  This makes his conclusions about the mild nature of Islamic slavery at least somewhat suspect.

Finally, the book concludes with an epilogue which borders on being a non sequitir, but which actually relates back to several problems with the book; in it he discusses America's Nation of Islam movement.  As a threshold matter, it's amusing that this distinctive black Islamic culture resides here, in the evil West, and not in the munificent East.  But the real gist of this section of the book is a bizarre harkening back to Segal's prediction of coming race war.  He excuses the racism of Black Muslim's as justified by white racism and the anti-Semitism as a mere learned behavior, taken from anti-Semitic whites :

    What rage, resentment, and revenge have developed in the Black Muslim movement is a racism to
    confront racism.

Segal also uses some statistics about the U. S. justice system to conclude that America remains a deeply divided and racist society, one which needs to listen to Louis Farrakhan's message about "the reality of racism."  In a few short pages, he manages to wildly overestimate both the problem of race in America and the importance of the Nation of Islam to such a degree that it calls into question his authority on the other topics he's discussed.

In the final analysis, though he has an important and unfairly ignored story to tell, Segal is just too unreliable a narrator to be taken seriously.  Having gotten so many of the big issues wrong, how can the reader trust him on the smaller one ?  There's probably a good book to be made out of these raw materials : this is not it.


Grade: (D)


Ronald Segal Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Ronald Segal
    -ESSAY: Why do we never talk about Islamic slavery? (Sean Thomas, 6/13/23, Spectator)

Book-related and General Links:
    -ESSAY : Slavery Days (Ronald Segal, The Guardian Wednesday December 17 1997 )
    -ARCHIVES : "ronald segal" (NY Review of Books)
    -BOOK SITE : Islam's Black Slaves (FSB Associates)
    -INTERVIEW : Islam's black  slaves :  The author of a book on the 1,400-year history of the other slave trade talks about the power of eunuchs, the Nation of Islam's falsehoods and the persistence of slavery today. (Suzy Hansen, Salon)
    -ESSAY : development of a critical African intellectual presence
    -DISSERTATION : The Anti-Apartheid Movement, Britain and South Africa:  Anti-Apartheid Protest vs Real Politik : A history of the AAM and its influence on the British Government's policy towards South Africa in 1964 (Arianna Lissoni, 15 September 2000)
    -ESSAY : General Lee's House, Arlington, Virginia (Brian Holden Reid, History Today)
    -REVIEW : of Islam's Black Slaves: The Other Black Diaspora  By RONALD SEGAL (ADAM HOCHSCHILD, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE BLACK DIASPORA By Ronald Segal (1995) (James M. McPherson, NY Times Book Review)

    -Center for Culture and History of Black Diaspora (
    -A Guide to the Black Diaspora
    -Studies in the World History of Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation
    -Slavery in the 21st Century :   A Herald Investigation (Sydney Morning Herald)
    -ESSAY : The African Diaspora: Revisionist Interpretations of Ethnicity, Culture and Religion under Slavery (Paul E. Lovejoy, Studies in the World History of Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation)
    -ESSAY : African heritage extends across the Arab world (Sunni Khalid, Delaware Online, 02/21/2000)
    -REVIEW : of South from Barbary: Along the Slave Routes of the Libyan Sahara by Justin Marozzi (Mark Sanderson, booksonline uk)